Upset Special: The Aftermath of North Carolina’s LossPosted by mpatton on November 27th, 2011
North Carolina‘s loss Saturday exposed several flaws in the team and in people’s perception of the team. When Ken Pomeroy ranked the Tar Heels fourth in the country, many national analysts scoffed. But don’t forget: the Tar Heels were not dominant last year. They got beat handily by a Duke team (without Kyrie Irving) in the ACC Tournament Finals after squeaking by Miami by two points and Clemson in overtime. Yes, they added PJ Hairston and James Michael McAdoo. But the unsinkable aura many gave this team coming into the season was a little overboard.
It is also important to look at the game and the details surrounding it to understand the loss. First and foremost, UNLV was a little underrated even though the Rebels were getting votes in the AP and Coaches’ polls before knocking off North Carolina. Second, the game was at a “neutral” site: yes, it wasn’t at the Thomas & Mack Center, but most of the crowd wore scarlet (I’d estimate the crowd was around 65-70% for UNLV). Third, the game comes right before North Carolina’s two toughest non-conference games of the season against Wisconsin and at Kentucky. That’s not to say Roy Williams or his team consciously overlooked UNLV, but the game happened in a “tournament” (less than 24 hours after their game with South Carolina) and right before they face two very good opponents.
Before looking at what went wrong in the game, it is important to look at what North Carolina did well. Most notably, PJ Hairston played incredibly. In only 13 minutes Hairston scored a team-high (tied with Harrison Barnes) 15 points on six shots. He has had a very productive season so far and has really excelled in his role off the bench. People asked going into this season who the knockdown shooter would be for North Carolina, and Hairston has answered the call although I think he is a year away from being a true go-to guy like Wayne Ellington. In a similar vein Reggie Bullock was terrific, going 4-5 from the field despite a couple of turnovers. He also played great defense for stretches. If Williams can get this much productivity out of these two, he will have to think about starting one of them over Dexter Strickland at some point. It should also be mentioned that the Tar Heels went on a run in the first half with Kendall Marshall on the bench. Marshall played well on the offensive end, especially in the first half when he knocked down a big three to put North Carolina up five.
Of course, there were plenty of mistakes. To make a long story short, North Carolina failed to guard the perimeter, failed to come up with rebounds down the stretch (when UNLV did everything it could to give the game back), missed key free throws, had very poor shot selection, played soft inside, and never had anyone (namely Tyler Zeller or Harrison Barnes) step up to take the game over.
The perimeter defense was such a problem that during North Carolina’s push to get back in the game Kendall Marshall was on the bench. UNLV hit 13 threes in the win, but had to attempt 32 to get there (a very good, but not mind-blowing, 40.6% clip). The biggest problem was North Carolina’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll in the high post, which frequently led to open looks for UNLV.
The team’s rebounding and shot selection woes felt like a side effect of being smacked in the mouth by the Rebels early and then again to open the second half. Even at the end of the game, Mike Moser and UNLV grabbed nearly every 50/50 ball (many of which were created by horrendous shots on both ends of the floor). North Carolina didn’t respond well at all to being down late as it looked very tight on offense. John Henson, Harrison Barnes, and Dexter Strickland all took ill-advised contested jumpers instead of trying to draw contact at the rim. Henson seemed to drift back to his freshman year looking for his offense too far from the basket.
Just how passive were Zeller and Barnes? The two combined for six points in the first half. Zeller only managed to score five for the game. Barnes was huge at the very end of the game until he missed two free throws that would have cut the deficit to four with 33 seconds left. That is one thing many people ignored because the final score was lopsided. To Barnes’ credit, he was much more aggressive the last few minutes, but it was too little too late. Zeller never found himself and, like Marshall, rode the pine during much of the potential comeback.
Finally, I want to talk about the reaction to this game. The upset was a wake-up call, but it wasn’t a sign of sure Armageddon either. Pollsters are likely to drop North Carolina much further than necessary: the question is how far. My guess is North Carolina will find itself in the 5-6 range behind Duke, Syracuse and Louisville. In reality, the eye test (which is a term I hate using, but is especially applicable early in the season) should leave North Carolina third. Kentucky and Ohio State should pass the Tar Heels, but putting them in that second tier is an overreaction in my opinion. The Tar Heels are still an elite team and being undefeated doesn’t make you elite.